Imagine you have a series where everything is handed to the main character on a silver platter, and they still appear like they’re barely able to reach the plate. This surreal experience is the heart of Tom Kratman’s Carrera series.
The backstory of how the series came to be is in many ways more interesting than the story of the books themselves. Tom Kratman was an officer in the US Army who had a disappointing career, rising to lieutenant colonel essentially by default without actually getting to command anything of significance. This was combined with a legal career that, to put it mildly, he wasn’t suited for.
So, he wrote several manuscripts of military fantasy stories. Then the infamous Baen Books accepted those manuscripts (after one throwaway novel featuring a heroic Texas taking on an evil Hillary Clinton caricature that even Kratman himself put solely into the “potboiler” category). Now, if these were just conventional thrillers that happened to be, say, a little more right-wing than even the norm for the genre, they would have been considered mild curiosities at best.
The Carrera books were not conventional thrillers. For one, they were intended as military manuals, to show the guy who was too good for those jealous idiots in the Pentagon how to really do stuff. Next, they were extremely cumbersome in terms of prose (to the extent that the first book had to be released in two volumes because it was too big). Finally, Baen had to apply a ‘sci-fi’ covering to them-but only the most basic covering. The result was very interesting.
So, here’s the plot summary of the actual books themselves. A space probe discovers another habitable world, and a force led by evil European administrators sends colony ships across the distance to “Terra Nova”, with various nationalities. Terra Nova is essentially exactly the same as the world the colonists left, only with everything upside down and backwards and the country names replaced with bad puns. South Africa becomes North Uhuru, the US is the Federated States of Columbia, France is Gaul, Britain is Anglia, to the disgust of Scots, Iraq is Sumer, etc… The worst examples are China and India, which become Zhong Guo and Bharat-yes, China and India become-China and India.
Meanwhile, the United Nations that ruled Old Earth collapsed into a literal backwards, decadent monarchy. Their space fleet was rusty and malfunctioning, to the point where they needed to buy replacement parts from the Terra Nova surface.
After a nonsensical “World War” that involved the “US”, “England”, and “Germany” against “France”, “Russia”, and “Japan”, there was a “Vietnam War” and a “Gulf War”, and even an “Iran-Iraq War”. (You see a pattern with the quotations).
At this point the actual books start. Patrick Hennessy has his family killed on “9/11” (which involves airships), kills several obnoxious yet nonviolent strawman pro-Muslim demonstrators, and after a bit of “Kind Hearts and Coronets-ing”, gets a huge inheritance. Calling himself Carrera, the vengeance-minded soldier sets to work on building a mercenary force out of formerly-demilitarized “Panama”.
After Carrera acquires a ton of suspiciously cheap military gear, he now has a brigade. Said brigade fights in the invasion of “Iraq”, where they find the Mystery WMDs after Carrera befriends a defeated “Iraqi” commander.
Eventually, the commander of the Space UN fleet is taken hostage and “Riyadh” nuked (!) by Carrera. This solves the “War on Terror” issue, and the series continues to the original manuscripts, where Carrera, with his array of meticulously built-up defenses, fights off the attacks on “Panama” by the “EU” and “China”.
The series has kind of been put on “indefinite hold”, as Kratman left to focus on writing a web column (and argue in the comments sections of said column) instead. Naturally, it stopped right on a “cliffhanger”, after fending off a “Chinese” amphibious attack.
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What makes the books stand out, besides the horrible writing and worse pacing (I was able to skip an entire book without missing anything, and could probably have skipped two more and still figured out what was going on), is the weirdly unheroic hero.
Carrera is a psychopath whose maximum effort at redemption is the occasional “I feel bad about this” sentence that doesn’t change any example of the characterization. The prologue to “A Desert Called Peace” features a man called the “Blue Jinn” who is confronting a huge group of prisoners, and orders the men to be crucified and the women and children sold into slavery. One reviewer thought the Blue Jinn was some yet-to-be-introduced antagonist-it was Carrera.
(The counterinsurgency tactic Carrea prefers can be summed up as ‘kill every man old enough to grow a beard, unless they’re on your side already’.)
Even towards his own troops, Carrera is unheroic. The main character casually yawns during a discussion of training deaths and views the percentage of casualties in training as not an inevitable tragedy but as an agreeable goal to toughen the troops up. Even the ruthlessness of the protagonist is secondary to the really weird characteristic-the fact, alluded to in the introduction, that even given every advantage, Carrera is a terrible commander.
When equipping his army, Carrera is an announced master of logistics. Unfortunately, Tom Kratman’s definitions of logistics involve only two things:
-An initial sticker price.
-A gamey ‘cost limit’ that can’t be exceeded.
This combines itself with the ‘manual’ part-see, everything is to be meticulously researched, because this is a true manual, and must be accurate. So the military is equipped using the same logic someone uses when looking at a Steam sale (ooh, three indie games for a dollar fifty!). My favorite example is his air force-rather than equip with surplus “MiG-29s” or something similar, Kratman saw that MiG-17s were available for the low thousands of dollars, so he had “Panama’s” air force be equipped with hundreds of “MiG-17s”-of course, they were upgraded with stuff that would obliterate the cost savings, but hey-sticker price.
My second-favorite is the navy, where he buys ships at scrap prices and has them be usable without budget-busting refits.
There are of course exceptions to this cheapskating. Of course “Panama” spends effort designing the Perfect Military Rifle, and makes super-tech whose cost calculations completely ignore development costs-therefore they get submarines that have never-before-used propulsion systems and can dive incredibly deep, as well as stealth aircraft. Then there’s the actual fighting.
In training, the infantry die repeatedly to sloppliness on the part of the trainer that doesn’t teach the survivors anything. The tank crews, on the other hand, not only perform poorly in initial training and are diverted to useless attacks on sea targets rather than returning until they get their fundamentals right, but when introduced to their vehicles, are given a de facto advertisment from the manufacturer instead of a realistic evaluation, to “improve morale”.
Once the combat begins, even that pales in comparison.
Pretty much every conventional battle follows the same formula. Kratman has bragged about writing full OPLANs and logistics plans for every single battle.
-Self-insert comes up with and infodumps detailed Grand Plan. (Sometimes the infodump is even multiple books ahead of the actual battle, but it’s there)
-Battle starts. Whatever the force, they just immediately dig in and don’t maneuver.
-Kratmanland forces get pounded by the strawman enemy.
-The Grand Plan is launched after many casualties.
-The Grand Plan is executed, and routs the strawman enemy.
Reading about tank crews not doing anything while infantry are fighting for their lives not too far away is kind of bizarre-and not even like any other Mary Sue. A conventional Mary Sue is something like the main character in the horribly wish-fulfillment computer fantasy anime series Sword Art Online, who can go into a VR game he’s never played before and zip around leaping and cutting his way to victory in a competitive tournament despite different mechanics. In Kratmanland, he would just camp in a bottleneck until the clock ran out and eke out a tiny victory by default thanks to having two more hit points than his opponent.
Thankfully, those who wish to check out the “majesty” of A Desert Called Peace for themselves can do so, for Baen has made the entire book free.
Just be prepared.